A Mixed Bag
When there are more than two screenwriters on a film, the story often becomes a mixed bag of ups and downs. That’s what seems to be the problem with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, directed by Wayne Wang and inspired by Lisa See’s bestselling novel of the same name.
The story -- adapted for the screen by three writers -- takes place in two time periods, switching back and forth from one to the other. As young girls in a 19th-century China, Snow Flower and Lily, both seven, are growing up in different environments. Snow Flower (Dai Yan) has a privileged upbringing in a home where Chinese tradition is strictly followed. For example, girls have their feet tightly bound – to the point of pain -- so their feet remain small. The Chinese believe this makes a girl more tempting to a suitable man. Lily (Guo Congmeng) comes from a poor family, but that’s exactly the reason her family raises the money to have her feet bound as well. It’s her only chance to surpass the class of her family.
The two girls meet and soon become laotong sisters -- a Chinese term used in early centuries that meant “sisters, lifelong friends.” The girls communicate by writing secret notes on the folds of a fan. They even sign a contract that they will be devoted to each other through their marriages and motherhood. This all unfolds a little into the film, which starts in modern times when Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) -- now known as Sophia -- is grown and gets hit by a car while riding on her bicycle. She’s taken to the hospital in a coma. Sometime later, Lily (Li Bingbing) -- now called Nina -- who hasn’t seen Snow Flower in years -- learns of the accident and goes to the hospital. Through her memories, their earlier relationship unfolds.
Beauty shines through the story that takes place in the early era. It’s enchanting, interesting and well acted. I liked learning something new about these customs and their impact on different aspects of Chinese culture. But the switch back and forth to the contemporary world comes across as quite jarring. Left unanswered are questions about what happened to Snow Flower’s family and why she is alone in the big city or why the women now have different names. Watching Nina in scene after scene just sitting by Sophia’s bedside mourning their past breakup becomes boring and unfulfilling.
If that isn’t enough to break the continuity of the film, there’s one hilarious scene where Hugh Jackman shows up looking old and ruffled as a nightclub singer. He’s supposed to be a past boyfriend of Sophia’s who broke up with her. As much as many of us love to see Jackman on film, it didn’t work here. When his character hears the news, emotion doesn’t even resonate .02 on the Richter scale of concern. (I can’t help comparing this to a scene from Moulin Rouge! inserted in the middle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). At the screening I attended, the body language of viewers gave away their extremely annoyed feelings during Jackman’s few minutes on screen.
I enjoyed the story of the young girls and how their trusting relationship became too strong ever to break. Without all the humdrum transitions, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan could have been entertaining. Author Lisa See deserved better as did Richard Wong for his resplendent cinematography and Rachel Portman for her enjoyable musical score.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "PG-13" for violence, sexuality, and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.